IN PRAISE OF SILENT PARTNERS

Cat Sunset1998 on paper doesn’t seem that long ago; but 1998 was the year an 18-year-old footballer called Michael Owen scored a wonder goal for England against Argentina in the World Cup; he’s now retired from playing and is struggling to replicate his talent on the pitch by droning into the pundit’s microphone. Tony Blair was twelve months into his decade as Prime Minister and was still largely enjoying a honeymoon period, playing his part in the Good Friday Agreement; he’s now almost universally condemned as a warmonger, doomed to wander from one obscure after-dinner speech to another while the western world craves his head on a plate. DVDs were introduced to the UK in 1998 – as were ASBOs; Bill Clinton was still US President – and 9/11 was three years away. And the house I shared was overrun with mice. Seems like a long time ago to me.

In 1998, the girl I lived with intervened in our rodent problem and delivered a stray cat to the house, something I thought madness due to the fact we had a dog. I’d underestimated the dog’s good nature and the cat’s knack for putting him in his place. The first night this feline recruit spent under our roof, I strolled into the kitchen, switched on the light, and she looked up at me with a mouse hanging out of her mouth. And so the very function that domesticated the cat in the human household proved as durable as ever. Mice, sparrows and (on one memorably gruesome occasion) pigeons had been warned.

That dogs and cats should remain the most popular of pets is no surprise considering the respective talents these once wild animals showed could be of service to us homo-sapiens if we invited them into our homes, whether helping us to hunt down our food or ridding us of vermin. This mutually beneficent partnership was entered into from the earliest organised communities, and while some of the roles these animals performed may have been watered down due to changing social environment in more recent times, it is still a partnership we instinctively crave, and one that both parties derive immense enjoyment and comfort from. The cat that entered my world as a stray mouser eighteen years ago accompanied me on every change of address thereafter (three in total) and finally left my world this week. The impact of her sudden removal from that world has rendered it a far emptier place than it was.

Up until this week, I would have said I’ve lived alone since 1999, though I now know that’s not true. It’s only coming home to an empty flat for the first time in twenty years that’s made me realise I had housemates all along. The relationship one has with a cat or a dog is obviously different to that which one has with a fellow human being, but no less rich for it; they may not be able to answer you back, but a rewarding game of telepathic chess develops over time, to the point where you can anticipate their next move and they can anticipate yours. Actual conversation may be one-way traffic, but I now see that one chatters away regardless; it is the silencing of that chatter that jars so much today. There are so many daily sayings I will no longer utter, let alone the silly singing of songs and altering the words to include the cat’s name. Moreover, I will never hear her miaow again either.

There’s a moving moment at the end of ‘The Dam Busters’, when the camera pans across the canteen at the RAF base from where the pilots dropping Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bombs are launched and we see the empty tables, signifying those airmen who never returned from the mission. Yet, there’s an equally moving moment earlier in the film when Richard Todd’s character has received the news his beloved dog (whose name we’re not allowed to say now, of course) has been killed by a hit and run driver. He holds the dog’s collar in his hand and glances across at his office door, which bears the paw-marks of those occasions when the dog has scratched it to notify him that it’s time for a walk. That’s what hits you when your four-legged companion has gone, all those little and poignant forensic insignias scattered around the house. Confronted by a vacant basket, an unsoiled litter tray, an untouched water bowl and surfaces strewn with her discarded hair, it feels as though she’s just popped out and she’ll be back in a minute. But she won’t.

Having shared my space with a dog for twelve years and a cat for eighteen (ten of them having the pair competing for my affection like a pair of sibling rivals), I know the distinct differences between the two species and also know the characteristics they share. Just as cat owners have to contend with the stereotypes – ageing lesbian spinster etc. – they also have to contend with the misinformation about cats themselves. Yes, they are more independent minded than their canine equivalents and less demanding in terms of what they require of us; but they are no less affectionate, nor (in the case of a house-cat, as mine was for fifteen years) no less dependent on us to ensure they’re fed and their litter is changed when it’s soiled. It’s not much to ask, really; and what we get in return far outweighs the necessity to organise one’s daily routine around their needs.

My cat was fiercely possessive of me, welding herself to my lap whenever a visitor called, sending out the message as to ownership, just in case. Perhaps that was her way of recognising that, without her, I probably wouldn’t be here. At my lowest ebb in my darkest hours, it was always the thought of her being abandoned that ultimately kept me going. I could abandon everyone else, but not her. The cat made me laugh when I didn’t feel like laughing via some daft, seemingly meaningless gesture; the undoubted eccentricities cats exhibit in their occasionally odd behaviour is very much in synch with my own outlook. Also, she was extremely teddy bear-like and became even more receptive to cuddles as she grew older; no longer able to leap great heights – including onto my shoulder, one of her favourite youthful destinations – and needing me to lift her up and down, she relied on my assistance even more and expressed her gratitude accordingly. She was so pivotal to the harmony of the household that it no longer feels like home anymore; it seems wrong that she’s no longer here to share it with me.

She was so robust in health for so long that watching the years catch up with her in the last couple of months of her life was heartbreaking; I never even had cause to take her to the vets until the very last day, when I had the most unenviable of responsibilities thrust upon me. The disparity between human and animal years is often commented on as unfair, something I wouldn’t dispute; but the cycle of life is played out before you with a pet in a way it isn’t with a person; one sees the seven ages from start to finish and adapts one’s relationship as a consequence, from parent to sidekick to carer – to paraphrase Rupert Everett’s lovely description in his memoirs, when referencing his changing role for his dog. Only later does one recognise the privilege in being privy to that cycle; it really is an honour. And confronted by a wider world that appears to grow increasingly ugly with each passing day, there is so much to miss and so, so much to mourn now that my beautiful silent partner has gone.

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AN ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK

VinylThough one could reasonably claim that, in an age of iPod shuffling and the downloading of individual tracks at the expense of a carefully planned running order by the artist, the recorded album as a structured art-form no longer exists, the fact remains that this weekend marks the sixtieth anniversary of the British album charts. The first chart-topping LP (as the album was commonly referred to prior to the advent of the CD) was Frank Sinatra’s peerless ‘Songs for Swinging Lovers’, a classic for a defiantly adult audience, the audience the LP primarily catered for following its 1948 introduction onto the market. Initially, the Long Playing record was developed for classical music, enabling separate movements of orchestral works to completely fill two sides of vinyl, rather than being split into little sections as had been the case with the 78. The newfangled format was soon taken up by the mums and dads as a grown-up alternative to the vinyl choice of their children, the 45rpm. It continued to be a barometer of largely adult tastes for the first half-decade of the LP charts’ existence.

Glancing at a list of early LP chart-toppers, however, it’s interesting to note appearances by the likes of Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and Tommy Steele, even if Rock ‘n’ Roll has a mere cameo role to play where No.1 albums are concerned during the late 50s and early 60s. If one imagined ‘Original Soundtrack’ was the name of a band, they’d probably be the most successful album act of all time, for original soundtrack recordings utterly dominate the album charts during this period.

‘Carousel’, ‘Oklahoma!’, ‘The King and I’, ‘High Society’ and ‘My Fair Lady’ – either original Broadway cast recordings of stage musicals or the movie versions – all spent endless weeks sitting atop the LP charts between 1956-58, though none can compete with the daddy of them all, ‘South Pacific’. Hitting No.1 in November 1958, the soundtrack album for the film of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s stage musical remained resident at the top of the charts for the next 70 weeks! Yes, it was the sole No.1 LP for the whole of 1959 and wasn’t deposed until March 1960. That wasn’t the end of the album’s chart-topping run, however; it returned to No.1 on a further seven occasions, finally ending a staggering tally of 115 weeks at the top with one solitary week in September 1961, almost three years after first reaching the pinnacle. Beat that, ‘Thriller’.

The early 60s saw an upsurge of chart-toppers from Elvis, Cliff Richard and The Shadows, as well as the incursion of Trad Jazz via the likes of Chris Barber, Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk, though middle-of-the road tastes were still the dominant trend; The Black and White Minstrels had a trio of No.1 LPs in 1961-62 and ‘West Side Story’ upheld the original soundtrack tradition.

There was a notable change from May 1963, however, when The Beatles’ debut album, ‘Please Please Me’, hit the top of the charts. It remained there for the next seven months, only knocked off No.1 by the follow-up, ‘With The Beatles’, in December. After almost a full year as the sole No.1 album act, The Beatles were momentarily deposed by The Rolling Stones, when their debut long-player hit the top for twelve weeks in April 1964. Most retrospectively regard the rivalry between the two bands in terms of the singles chart, though it’s more glaringly evident in the LP chart of the time. ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ knocked the first Stones album off No.1 in July, a position it occupied until The Beatles again replaced themselves in December, this time with ‘Beatles for Sale’. ‘The Rolling Stones No.2’ hit the top spot at the end of January ’65 and the Beatles-Stones dominance of the chart finally ended when Bob Dylan’s ‘Freewheelin’ reached No.1 in April, the first non-Beatles or Stones chart-topper in two whole years.

By the mid-60s, the LP was becoming more recognised as an additional vinyl plaything for the singles-buying teens, with further chart-toppers from The Beatles, Stones and Dylan enhancing the generational handover where the album was concerned. There was one final hurrah for the old-school LP, however, when the soundtrack album for ‘The Sound of Music’ hit No.1 in May 1965, a position it returned to on a further ten occasions for the following two-and-a-half years, enjoying 70 chart-topping weeks in total. Hard to believe in an age when the songs from the film are now primarily seen as the province of a cult and mainly gay audience; but it was once the mainstream.

It was the release of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ in June 1967 that finally sealed the album as the vinyl purchase of choice for the record-buying masses, a position it held throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, surviving the changes in formats, from the cassette to the CD. The changes of the past decade, however, have altered the listening experience far more dramatically than at any time since the long-playing record appeared 68 years ago. The listener can now choose the running order of the album if they so wish; and the cohesive narrative of songs that became the album’s most distinctive hallmark has been rendered redundant. Still, it was bloody good while it lasted.

© The Editor

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WAR IN EUROPE

MunichAs nine more lives are added to an obscenely high European body-count courtesy of another angry young man dangerously detached from the empathetic interaction that enables civilised societies to function, it’s worth remembering Europe has been here before. That yesterday’s atrocity in Munich should have been carried out on the fifth anniversary of Andres Breivik’s chilling slaughter of 77 innocent people in Norway may imply this is all a recent development stretching back not much more than a decade. Granted, it’s certainly a barbaric new phase in the story; yet, while motivation, mission and cause may differ, even the location of the latest in 2016’s roll-call of indiscriminate assassinations already has, of course, a prominent blood-stained blot on its post-war history.

Forty-odd years on, it’s easy to forget those small groups of anarchists that sprang from the turbulent political maelstrom of 1968, those graduates and beneficiaries of expanding educational opportunities in an increasingly affluent Europe; whilst some simply settled for university sit-ins, placard-waving demos or forming idiosyncratic prog-rock bands, others crossed a line that carried them beyond the paramilitary pale. Prominent members of The Baader-Meinhof Gang (or Red Army Faction), ETA and the Red Brigades were the children of German Nazis and Spanish and Italian Fascists, taking the traditional rebellion against their parents to a gruesome new level. Confronted by ruling elites still containing veterans of the discredited regimes that had plunged the world into global conflict thirty years before, they viewed the post-war Western European democracies as a sham and embarked upon campaigns of terror that spanned the 70s.

But all were usurped by an outside organisation, Black September, a Palestinian group whose most infamous moment came with the massacre that marred the Munich Olympics of 1972.

Although it was effectively an isolated incident on European soil that had no parallel for decades, what the Black September group managed in 1972, taking eleven Israeli athletes hostage and eventually murdering them in the middle of the Olympic Games, an event that was supposed to show the world how far Germany had come since 1945, was something new. The world was watching and Black September were acutely aware of that. Although they were secular nationalists and religion had no real part to play in the atrocity they executed, they exploited media attention to their advantage in ways that subsequent terrorist groups where religion is employed as a cause have learned from.

Black September were far more organised and far more ambitious than their European contemporaries, becoming expert in the hijacking of aircraft in particular; indeed, they continued to perpetrate such attacks long after the likes of the Baader-Meinhof Gang had been imprisoned and/or killed. Whilst all this was going on in mainland Europe, Britain had its own terrorist problem in the shape of the IRA; whilst sharing little in terms of motivation with their continental comrades-in-illegal arms, the impact of the IRA on 70s Britain ran parallel with events in West Germany, Italy and Spain, giving the impression that Europe as a whole was at war with itself. The authorities responded to the new professionalism of terrorism by forming anti-terrorist agencies that specified in the unprecedented challenges facing the continent; one positive outcome was that countries confronted by these challenges co-operated to keep the anarchy under control, arguably cementing European unity with greater effectiveness than the Common Market and EU ever have.

While the more concise and focused demands of ETA and the IRA had an eternal attraction to some that made it possible for their ranks to constantly regenerate when death and imprisonment robbed them of long-term leaders, their 70s contemporaries seemed to belong to a particular post-war moment that burned itself out. However, having a mere two dominant terrorist organisations to lock horns with and then eventually neutralising their threat may have made the agencies formed to combat them quite complacent in other areas.

Just as the end of the Cold War provoked a false sense of international security, the respective ceasefires of ETA and IRA activities appeared to close a chapter on a particular kind of organised terrorism that modelled itself on an actual army, prompting a slight smugness and guard-lowering on the part of the authorities; it also possibly blinded them to the growth of ‘virtual’ armies that were far more inclusive and far more attractive to the disturbed individual in the bedroom.

There’s a sad irony that events in France and Germany should bookend a week in which the future of nuclear deterrents and Trident in particular has been vigorously debated. The astronomical cost of such weapons and the belief of governments in their vital importance both feel like a hangover from a completely different century now, a century of nation states whose enemies were other nation states. The threats posed by the national arsenals gathering dust almost seem an abstract irrelevance in a fluid, less rigid era of mass migration, rootless international identity and the unforeseen resurgence of faith over nation as a means of self-identification. All your aspiring Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini now needs is a computer and a gun. This is twenty-first century ‘Punk Rock’ war; anyone can do it – on public transport, on the street, in the mall.

© The Editor

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WE HAVE WAYS OF MAKING YOU WIN

SochiWhenever Sir Humphrey Appleby wanted an especially tricky issue kicking into the long grass on ‘Yes Minister’, he would propose an inquiry to put-upon Jim Hacker as a means of burying it – never a public inquiry, of course; it would always be an in-house affair chaired by someone purposely chosen to ensure a verdict that would absolve Hacker’s ministry of all responsibility. I couldn’t help but be reminded of this process when reading of Vladimir Putin’s reaction to the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban all Russian track and field athletes from the imminent Rio Olympics following claims of Russia’s state-sponsored performance-enhancing doping of its Olympians in a damning report by the World Anti-Doping Agency. After announcing all the named officials had been suspended pending an inquiry, Tsar Vladimir nominated an honorary Russian member of the IOC to head an anti-doping commission; Putin also apparently wants his nominee, Vitaly Smirnov, to make sure the stable doors are bolted now that the horses have buggered off.

‘The official position of the Russian authorities, the government and the president, all of us, is that there can be no place for doping in sport’ – those were the words of Vlad when confronted by the claims of his nation’s own former national anti-doping laboratory head, Grigory Rodchenkov, a man who is now on the Kremlin’s hit-list after his allegations appear to have been given credibility in the eyes of the IOC by the WADA report. Descriptions of how Russia assembled a veritable piss-bank of clean urine samples that were then ingeniously swapped with contaminated ones in an elaborate scam involving the Russian secret service, the FSB, are worthy of a Cold War spy novel.

These practices are alleged to have begun in earnest following demands for improvement after Russia’s low medal count at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. With Putin viewing the 2014 Winter Olympics, held in the Russian Black Sea coastal city of Sochi, as his very own ‘Berlin ‘36’ moment, he spent £37.7 billion to impress the watching world and obviously required a return on his investment via a vastly superior performance by the host nation’s athletes than they had managed four years previously. Positive drug tests miraculously vanished where Russian competitors were concerned and the country found itself top of the medal table by the end, boasting 33 in total, considerably up from the tally of 15 in Vancouver. Grigory Rodchenkov alleges a third of Russian medals awarded at the Sochi games were won courtesy of doping. According to the WADA report, 580 positive tests across 30 different disciplines were successfully suppressed for the four-year period the scam was in use.

It goes without saying that Russian athletes are hardly unique when it comes to enhancing their performances with illicit substances; but if what the WADA report claims is true, the scale and professionalism of the operation the Russian sports authorities evidently embarked upon before Sochi is unprecedented. Blaming it on a few isolated individuals would be akin to blaming Hack-Gate on a small handful of rogue reporters as opposed to the billion-dollar organisation that employed them. But should we really be surprised?

Throughout the Cold War, there was no shortage of suspicions regarding athletes from Iron Curtain countries whenever the wider world had the rare opportunity to see them in action during international competitions. Some of the female competitors were remarkably masculine, to say the least – often making Giant Haystacks resemble a passable Lynsey de Paul lookalike. Only when the Iron Curtain collapsed and countries such as the GDR ceased to exist did some of those competitors finally speak about the systematic abuse of their bodies by chemicals provided by the state, an abuse that was standard practice for decades. Is it any wonder that the kind of government Putin has established in Russia should revert to old-school Soviet tactics now that winning at the expense of fair play has become the be-all and end-all of a tournament too huge for its own good?

The increased pressures and demands on big name countries to triumph in sporting competitions is apparent with each one that comes around; even the BBC commentator midway through the dreary European Championships Final of a couple of weeks ago was moved to ask what the last exciting international football final the viewers could remember seeing actually was. I shouted at the telly ‘The 1986 World Cup Final – Argentina 3 West Germany 2!’ There have been seven World Cup Finals since then, and they’ve all been played by men who look terrified of putting a foot wrong for fear it will lead to their nation’s humiliation. And now they also have to contend with what social media will make of them.

Sporting records are set to be broken, but one wonders how much faster a human being can run, how much higher he can leap and how much further he can jump. Yes, intensive training programmes, developments in diet and a more educated awareness of what constitutes physical wellbeing have all played their part in the vast improvements that have been made in track and field over the past fifty years; but how much does the breaking of records owe to doping? How far are nations, let alone individuals, prepared to go? Ask Vlad.

© The Editor

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THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM

WillieEnglish football’s national side was, for the first near-century of its existence, chosen by a committee of selectors, as was the tradition in cricket until as late as the 1990s. The appointment of Walter Winterbottom in 1946 as team manager with authority for coaching was a revolutionary development, though Winterbottom himself didn’t have overall control regarding team selection and had also never been a club manager. The Club Vs Country debate was as burning an issue in the 40s and 50s as much as it is today, and even though international football in England and Scotland predates league football, success at club level was regarded as the litmus test for football management. Had the path from league to international football applied before the war, someone such as Herbert Chapman – a record-breaking manager with Huddersfield Town in the 20s and Arsenal in the 30s – would surely have been the top candidate for the England manager’s job had such a post existed at the time.

As it was, the FA decided to appoint a team manager after the war and chose a former Manchester United player whose playing career, like so many, had been interrupted by global conflict. However, after being demobbed, Winterbottom had devoted his time to coaching and was something of a visionary when it came to his approach to the game. During his stint as England’s first manager, he guided the side to thirteen out of sixteen victories in the British Championships; at the time, the Home International contest was regarded as the real barometer of success, being the oldest international competition in the world. He also led the team to qualification for the World Cup for four consecutive tournaments, even if FIFA’s premier contest had yet to attain the pre-eminence it holds today.

Before being relieved of his duties by the FA in 1963, Walter Winterbottom urged English football’s governing body that a man with complete control of team selection as well as the coaching aspect was vital if the national side were to compete with the top teams of Europe and South America. The FA responded by appointing Alf Ramsey, a former international who had steered unfashionable Ipswich Town from the Third Division to a remarkable triumph as English league champions in 1962. As we all know by now, Winterbottom’s recommendations paid off, with Ramsey managing England’s only triumph in an international tournament fifty years ago. Winterbottom’s insistence on the importance of coaching ironically benefitted English league football more than the national side, assembling a line-up of notable names on the coaching staff during his stint as England manager, names such as Don Howe, Malcolm Allison, Bill Nicholson, Joe Mercer, Dave Sexton, Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson – all of whom went on to achieve success at club level.

Despite surrendering a 2-0 lead to West Germany as defending champions in the Quarter Finals of the 1970 Mexico World Cup and crashing out 3-2, the now-Sir Alf Ramsey kept his job and seemed set to take England to another World Cup in 1974. However, a 1972 home defeat to West Germany in the European Championships highlighted the subsequent development of the two teams that had competed in the 1966 World Cup Final. The Germans had gone back to basics and built a team around sweeper Franz Beckenbauer that would go on to win that tournament and the World Cup itself two years later, a competition England failed to qualify for, and a failure that cost Sir Alf his job.

The FA understandably turned to the most successful club manager of the past decade, Leeds United’s Don Revie, in the summer of 1974 and there was cause for optimism at the appointment. Sadly, though a former England international himself, Revie established a pattern of struggling to replicate club success at international level that has persisted ever since. His England side had more or less failed in its attempt to qualify for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina when Revie gave the press what it wanted and walked out on the job; that he took care of his own financial future by signing-up to coach the national side of the United Arab Emirates at a time when England managers weren’t guaranteed a golden handshake was something that unfairly blackened his character forevermore, and it was notable that his short-lived successor at Leeds (and long-time nemesis), Brian Clough, applied for the job as England manager after Revie’s resignation. Cloughie’s avowed intention to take complete control of the FA itself didn’t do him any favours and the FA played it safe by appointing West Ham manager Ron Greenwood.

Exiting the 1982 World Cup undefeated, cheated by the hand of Maradona in 1986, let down by the wayward penalty kick of Chris Waddle in 1990 and the similarly ineffective boot of Gareth Southgate in 1996, England’s international record since the departure of Don Revie pales pitifully next to our nearest European neighbours, especially the Germans and the French. Men with impressive English club credentials – Bobby Robson, Graham Taylor, Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan and Steve McClaren – coupled with those whose reputations rested upon Continental club success – Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello – all failed to reap the rewards that more than one generation of English footballers suggested should have been a given. Roy Hodgson was merely the latest in a long line of managers incapable of moulding a team from talents that are crying out for a system to sweep competition aside on the world stage.

With the majority of England’s top club sides managed by overseas coaches, the FA’s shortlist of successors to Hodgson seems to have thrown up the sole name of Sam Allardyce, a man who has never won a single trophy at club level, but whose dogged determination to evade relegation has earned him a reputation as a gritty survivor. If predecessors who could boast far more impressive league CVs couldn’t concoct a magic formula for the national side, that’s no real impediment. It remains to be seen if Allardyce can succeed where everyone since Sir Alf has failed, but I suspect someone well-versed in grinding out results without being remotely pretty possibly stands a better chance, if Portugal’s triumph at Euro 2016 is anything to go by. Were he to dismantle the worn-out and wholly ineffective structure of the FA in the process, he might just succeed. But that is just one of the many impossible dreams to be realised by whoever inherits the most unenviable poisoned chalice in English football.

© The Editor

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OWEN WHO?

FacelessAlas Smith and Jones – the two Owens. That’s why I keep confusing their surnames. It doesn’t help that the Englishman has the Welsh surname and the Welshman has the English one. Yes, that’s how instantly forgettable the man who believes he can topple Jezza really is, that I confuse him with the baby-faced media socialist from ‘The North’ whenever he crops up in conversation. Anyway, let’s get the trivial factors out of the way.

Owen Smith looks like one of those half-dozen contenders who are first to throw their hat into the ring when there’s a leadership vacancy, the one nobody’s ever heard of, the one who’s there to make up the numbers; only, he isn’t Stephen Crabb. He didn’t drop out before a single vote had been cast. Now that Angela Eagle has returned to the charisma factory she was manufactured in, Owen Smith is the sole contender for Corbyn’s hollow crown. Unlike the Christian Tory who believes homosexuality is a curable illness but ‘sexting’ somebody who isn’t one’s spouse is permissible, Owen Smith doesn’t even have a ridiculous claim to fame. I can’t get worked up about what a nonentity he is. When I see Donald Trump and his supporters, I see a Nuremberg Rally; I feel like I’m looking at Hitler on a cinema newsreel in the 30s and I shudder because I know what comes next. When I see Owen Smith, I see the bloke behind the building society counter asking me if I’ve ever considered a credit card when I’m withdrawing my last four-and-a half quid.

Lest we forget, however, he is normal – as he emphasised when launching his pitch this week. He’s got a wife and kids and has already raffled them as political collateral before the cameras. Angela Eagle, AKA ‘Mrs Civil Partnership’, can’t do that, can she? He’s Welsh, of course – just like his hero Nye Bevan; funny how that particular Welsh Labour name keeps cropping up in the same sentence as Smith, rather than Neil Kinnock (Once elected as an MP with a Welsh constituency, Smith at least made sure he quickly relocated to the Land of his Fathers from Surrey). As an orator and presence, he generates the same kind of confidence in the viewer as Ed Miliband managed so masterfully for five years. Hell, yeah.

The son of a Welsh historian and broadcaster, Smith attended a state school, but his first brush with politics after working both for the BBC and as a lobbyist for a couple of pharmaceutical companies was as a Spad for MP Paul Murphy in his roles as Secretary of State for Wales and then Northern Ireland. His early public pronouncements on all things political included a thumbs-up for the archetypal Blairite project for the NHS, the Private Finance Initiative, as well as initial approval for the invasion of Iraq.

Smith’s eventual entrance into Westminster came via the safe seat of Pontypridd in 2010, and he was made Shadow Secretary for Wales by Ed Miliband in 2012. Jeremy Corbyn gave him the job that bestowed household name status upon him – Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions – after ascending to the Labour leadership last year, a post Smith held until joining the Shadow Cabinet exodus in the wake of the Brexit vote.

As the fusty old Conservative Party elected its second female leader and consequently gave the country a woman as PM for a second time – 2-0, as the late Dave gloated in the Commons – Labour’s alleged reputation as the promoter of minorities and testicle-free individuals has left us once again with a white man challenging a white man for the top job. And Smith wants Claus IV reborn, incorporating a pledge to tackle inequality into the party’s constitution; not applicable where the party’s leadership is concerned, apparently. According to Smith himself, he shares many of Corbyn’s core values; if that’s the case, what’s the point in replacing Jezza as leader with someone who oozes even less charm and personality than the bearded wonder? Isn’t the aim of a potential new leader to distinguish himself from the man he hopes to succeed? Theresa May seems to have taken that on board in record time.

The hustings begin in a couple of days, with the promise of some truly electrifying platform performances from the secular Ayatollah who could fart into a microphone and still elicit euphoric adulation from his disciples, and from the challenger about whom it’s physically, mentally and medically impossible to get remotely excited. Both are supporting cast members; neither are leading men. And yet, top of the bill is exactly what they’re fighting for. Who will be Prime Minister if a General Election is called in the autumn or the spring? I’ll wager she’ll have a penchant for kitten heels. Who will be Leader of the Opposition? Which Opposition is that, then?

© The Editor

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SOMETHING IN THE AIR

Gas MasksThe title of this post is lifted from the 1969 chart-topper by one-hit wonders Thunderclap Newman, a song that seems to encapsulate within its grooves a moment at the end of the 1960s when the tumultuous events of 1968 hadn’t entirely exterminated the optimistic spirit of ’67. Though very much a project sponsored by the same state that was simultaneously slaughtering peasants in Vietnam, the momentous achievement of putting a man on the moon suggested the general cultural zeitgeist remained forward-looking and convinced better days were just around the corner. John Lennon expressed as much when profiled in an ATV mini-series aired in December ’69 called ‘Man of the Decade’; the belief may have been misplaced or naive, but it was genuine and heartfelt. A generation born in a collective air-raid believed a different way of doing things was possible. Imagine no heaven, no countries, no possessions.

It certainly feels as though something is again in the air in 2016, though the odours of that something are not of incense, peppermints or even napalm; I can’t really put my finger on it, but there are a lot of people I know who seem to be wading through a dense, noxious fog as dense and noxious as that which permeated every nook and cranny and rookery of Dickens’ London in the memorable opening of ‘Bleak House’. Granted, many are experiencing personal crises that aren’t necessarily specific to 2016, ones that could have happened at any moment in history, in any turbulent chapter of this planet’s story as much as in any so-called Golden Age forever recalled with nostalgic reverence. They could have taken place in 1916 or 1966, and the world outside their window wouldn’t have played any discernible role. But all of the internal events that are affecting the lives of loved ones right now appear to be synchronised with external events to an unsettling degree. Perhaps that’s the impact of the age of 24/7 social media; perhaps not.

A close friend who is finding life exceedingly heavy going at the moment said to me last week that ‘everything seems to have gone wrong since Bowie died’. I thought of the vinyl label of Bowie’s 1973 LP ‘Aladdin Sane’; the song from which the album took its title is listed as ‘Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)’. The information contained within the brackets marks the two years prior to the twentieth century’s twin global conflicts and clearly taps into the paranoia of the time by suggesting a year in the 1970s will serve the same calm-before-the storm purpose. True, it could merely have been Bowie playing with that paranoia for artistic effect or simply reflecting his own nihilistic worldview that he took onto another apocalyptic level with 1974’s ‘Diamond Dogs’. But ‘Aladdin Sane’ was released just a few months before the bleak economic meltdown of the Three Day Week, an era marked by rumours of right-wing military coups instigated by MI5 and/or retired colonial colonels with private armies on one hand and left-wing communist coups instigated by Moscow on the other.

What appears to be in the air today is not so black and white, but a multi-layered mosaic of malodorous uncertainty. It is the murder of Jo Cox as well as the ongoing massacres in the US; it is the litany of unexpected celebrity deaths as well as the terrorist atrocities on the Continent; it is the failed Turkish coup d’état as well as Brexit; it is Donald Trump as well as austerity; it is Syria as well as curbs on free speech; it is incompetence and corruption in public services as well as refugees drowning at sea. Possibly because of the way in which we are able to instantly access news, to quickly switch from one horror story to another or to be bombarded by them on Facebook and Twitter even when we’re not seeking them out, they seem bigger and uglier than they ever would have seemed in the past, when limited television news bulletins and 24 hours-later newspapers exerted breathing space between each horrendous headline. It’s a theory, anyway.

Were that the root cause of events in which we have no direct involvement seeping into our individual neuroses and exacerbating them, fair enough; but I wonder why so many seem to be struggling in the first place? If we compare the comforts we can call upon to the real hardships endured by our grandparents or great-grandparents, we haven’t got a leg to stand on when it comes to complaints. The dazzling variety of choice, whether in relation to electronic goods, TV channels, food, clothing or virtually every luxury item that constitutes an acquisitive society should suffice, yet endless choice itself can actually be quite overwhelming and incapable of filling the inexplicable inner vacuum that our forefathers seemed capable of filling without any of our fripperies.

I suppose age could play a part as well; most of my friends are over 40; I myself am careering towards 50. But recent surveys suggest the kind of social isolation that appears quite commonplace within my own demographic is as high amongst teenagers. And it’s a vicious circle. Something awful in the news drags us down when we’re already feeling low because we’ve just received some stupid bill that we can’t afford to pay, making us vulnerable sitting targets for the next horrific news event as well as the next dispiriting demand on our limited finances; it can get to the point where the internal and external are practically interchangeable as sources of anxiety and helplessness. I think a sense of helplessness is crucial too: we don’t have the money required to pay the bill and we can’t do anything to alter whatever depressing news story has invaded our private space via the mass media. Both feel as though they are ultimately out of our control.

I don’t know what the solution is. Watch less TV news and don’t regularly buy a paper? I started doing that about a decade ago, but I wasn’t online back then. It’s so much harder to avoid the big stories now. They eventually find your address. And, if you’re feeling lousy to begin with, these big bad wolves will huff and they’ll puff and they’ll blow your house down. But one little pig did survive, of course; so maybe we should simply build with bricks and we’ll get through it.

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THE PRIZE: TURKEY

TurkeyBack when the world was a bigger place than it is today, the annual ‘Blue Peter’ summer expedition served as an eye-opening introduction to far-off foreign destinations and indigenous cultures for a UK audience of children, many of whom (like me) had never ventured beyond the British Isles at the time. One particularly memorable moment came in 1975 when John Noakes stood in the middle of the Bosphorus Bridge and pointed to one end, declaring over there was Europe, before pointing to the other and declaring over there was Asia. Funny how these things have a habit of returning to the forefront of one’s thoughts at the most unexpected moments. When news broke of an attempted military coup in Turkey a couple of days ago, the very same bridge was back in the headlines, closed to traffic due to the emergency.

The ‘Blue Peter’ trip to Turkey – just a year after the country had invaded Cyprus – was sandwiched between two other military coups, taking place in 1971 and 1980, though there had already been another (back in 1960) long before John, Pete and Lesley flew to Istanbul. That 2016 should witness a fourth is not really a great surprise. The Turkish Army takes its role seriously as an upholder of the Turkish Republic’s secular constitution, as established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1922; and a country that acts as the gateway from one continent to another has always had powder-keg potential whenever relations between Europe and Asia are fraught, especially where interpretations of faith are concerned. Threats to Turkey’s avowed intention to not be governed by religious doctrine, along with the increasing censorship of the polarising Islamist President Erdogan, appear to have sparked this latest military uprising which, unlike those of 1960, 1971 and 1980, has failed.

Erdogan has been a divisive and dictatorial figure ever since his election as President in 2014, following eleven years as the country’s Prime Minister. His Islamist political stance was evident early on, even resulting in a prison sentence for inciting religious intolerance in 1998. His two years in office as Turkey’s President have been marked by a clampdown on freedom of speech and regular accusations of human rights violations, both of which have continued to stall Turkey’s ongoing attempts to join the European Union and both of which are too close to hardline Islamic states for comfort. His conservative Islamist leanings have also been seen by some as placing Turkey’s proud tradition of secularism in peril.

It was notable that the rebel forces within the Turkish military that spearheaded this aborted coup saw capturing television stations as a top priority, for Erdogan’s attempts to control state broadcasting appear to have been based on the Putin model. Unlike the Soviet Union, the Ottoman Empire is no longer within living memory, and the independent republic that rose from the ashes of the old Ottoman possessions carved up by the allied European powers at the end of the First World War was a deliberate break with the old Islamic imperial past. However, just as the pop culture of the defunct GDR has something of a nostalgic cult following in East Germany, the legends of Ottoman conquest exercise a sentimental grip on many of those who subscribe to Islamic Fundamentalism; and President Erdogan often seems possessed by the spirits of the deceased sultans.

Anyone ascending to the pinnacle of political power in Turkey is conscious that the military’s loyalty is not so much to the nation’s leader, but to the founding spirit of the nation; and Erdogan has used canny means to neutralise any potential challenge from the military to his authority, rounding up hundreds of army officers in two separate high-profile court cases based on spurious rumours of coup-plotting. The removal of those whose loyalty to him wasn’t guaranteed enabled him to promote those whose was. Along with military personnel sentenced to lengthy prison sentences were numerous journalists and opposition politicians hostile to Erdogan’s rule. Even before he became President in 2014, Erdogan’s lengthy spell as Prime Minister served as a warm-up to his tyrannical presidency, with public protests ruthlessly crushed and controversial judicial reforms laying the ground for the virtual Absolute Monarchy he appears to be creating for himself. ‘Insulting the President’ has now become an offence of a nature that would be more familiar in Iran, bracketed as an effective terrorist act.

The manner in which Erdogan has imposed his law upon Turkey and the way he is viewed by his opponents as threatening the country’s cherished secular foundations was bound to provoke military response sooner rather than later, yet the failed coup d’état of last week, which has so far claimed over 250 lives, has been suspected by some as a stunt instigated by the President himself. In many respects, it gives him the remit to suppress all dissent that he has been waiting for. His immediate response to the coup – arresting almost 3,000 soldiers and over 200 politicians as well as firing over 2,000 judges – has been swift; some foreign observers have made the point that the President’s hand is now stronger than ever; he has carte-blanche to enforce his authority in what the New York Times has labelled a counter-coup.

‘He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch his people in a trap.’ So spoke modern Turkey’s venerated founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The country’s unique geographical position has always placed it on the frontline of any East-West tensions, yet as a secularist state it has managed to act as a successful bridge between two regularly clashing cultures. How much longer it can continue to do so with a man like Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the helm remains to be seen; but the signs aren’t great.

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A LITTLE PERSPECTIVE

MacmillanOn days such as this, when one wakes up to yet another act of mass murder that can only inspire repetition of points made in the aftermath of the last – when was it? Oh, yes, as far back as a week ago – there’s probably not a lot that can be added to what’s been said before. Different city, different perpetrator, different lives lost, horrible end result the same. So, safer instead to reflect on an event gifted with melodramatic invocations of death, albeit one where all that was lost were the careers of men and women who are still alive and kicking, just not in the same locations they were alive and kicking in at the beginning of the week.

What the media have labelled ‘The Day of the Long Knives’ has deliberate echoes of ‘The Night of the Long Knives’ in 1962, though that incident itself took its name from a vicious purge that had happened in the early days of Nazi Germany, when lives actually were lost. Harold Macmillan’s knives were out only in the metaphorical sense, but the circumstances that particular Tory PM found himself in when compared to Theresa May’s current clear-out were slightly different.

In the summer of 1962, the Conservative Party had been in power for over a decade. Harold Macmillan had been Prime Minister for five years, replacing Anthony Eden after the Suez debacle and then receiving a mandate from the electorate in 1959. The Tories were assisted in their stranglehold on government by a Labour opposition deeply divided on ideological issues between leader Hugh Gaitskell and firebrand Aneurin Bevan, and (as ever) a divided Labour Party handed job security to their Tory opponents. However, come the new decade, the old men of Westminster were beginning to look a little out of touch. With a dynamic young leader in the White House and the biggest beneficiaries of Supermac’s own ‘You’ve never had it so good’ economic policies being Britain’s youth, Macmillan – a World War I veteran – was acutely aware that the new generation of red-brick university graduates were turning away from the Tories towards the resurgent Liberal Party, something that culminated in Eric Lubbock’s shock capture of Orpington in the by-election of March 1962.

It was Lubbock’s legendary victory that really set the cat amongst the Tory pigeons. Overturning a safe Conservative majority of 14,760 and winning the Liberals a majority of 7,855, Lubbock lit the fuse for a Cabinet reshuffle as Macmillan desperately sought to arrest his party’s sliding popularity. A General Election was still theoretically a couple of years away, so Macmillan figured he had time to reverse the fortunes that had been faltering ever since the Budget of 1960, which saw a U-turn on tax cuts, and then Chancellor Selwyn Lloyd’s public sector pay-freeze. Lubbock’s triumph was the Tory disaster that a string of poor by-election results had been pointing towards, so Macmillan – who was also convinced that a leadership challenge was brewing – discussed an impending reshuffle with his closest advisers, with a provisional date fixed for that autumn.

Events were rushed forward following an ill-advised lunch between Deputy PM Rab Butler and ‘Daily Mail’ proprietor Lord Rothermere, in which the former let slip his PM’s intentions. Unsurprisingly, the plans appeared in print the next day and a furious Macmillan was forced to wield the axe sooner than planned. Chancellor Lloyd was the first to be summoned for an audience with Macmillan the day the Mail headline appeared and was promptly sacked. The speed with which Macmillan then acted belied his public image as the nation’s kindly Edwardian uncle, the tweedy old Patrician who reserved his killer instinct for grouse. The day after Lloyd lost his job, the PM fired six other Cabinet Ministers, completing the job the following day when nine junior ministers were added to the hit-list.

Several up-and-coming Tory MPs who would go on to make their marks later, such as Reginald Maudling and Sir Keith Joseph, were among the fresh faces Macmillan brought in with the hope that the new blood would ensure the continuation of his ministry. However, to the public and political commentators, it looked like an act of desperation on Macmillan’s part. Future Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe responded with one of his wittiest quotes, observing that the PM had laid down his friends for his life. Yet the gamble appeared to have paid off within a few months, suggesting Macmillan had shown great foresight; he cannily adopted many of the policies the Liberals had advocated, which in turn curtailed their brief revival at the polls.

The death of Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell in January 1963 saw his replacement Harold Wilson revitalise the party, attracting those who had been drawn to the Liberals just as the effect of the devastating winter of 1962/63 on the economy was becoming apparent. That same year, the Profumo Scandal further strengthened Wilson’s hand and eventually provoked a weary Macmillan’s sudden retirement in October, fifteen months on from the Night of the Long Knives. Any severe Cabinet reshuffle ever since has been compared to Macmillan’s 1962 clearing of dead wood, so it’s no great surprise that the P45s handed to the Cameron crew by Theresa May has drawn comparisons, even if such changes tend to come with a new broom at No.10 rather than when a PM is five years into their tenure.

I’ve no idea how many tears were shed over the swift departures of Selwyn Lloyd and his half-dozen Cabinet colleagues fifty-four years ago, but I know there isn’t a moist eye in this house as we wave goodbye to Gove, Osborne, Morgan, Letwin and Whittingdale. Besides, a little perspective helps on days such as this.

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PROJECT BREWERY PISS-UP

Good Old DaysThere’s been a lot of stolen thunder this week; and all of it seems to have been stolen from Labour by the Tories. The embarrassing (anti) climax of Angela Eagle’s ‘Dragons’ Den’-style pitch for the Labour leadership on Monday morning saw the hopeful no-hoper ready to take questions from the assembled press corps, unaware most of them had dashed around the corner to catch Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal announcement. On Wednesday, Owen Smith (yes, you know him, don’t you?) decided to split the anti-Corbyn vote by declaring his own intention to stand against the leader; and this declaration was utterly overshadowed by the Cameron-May handover. However, the Corbynistas must have been delighted that their performance at the meeting of the National Executive Committee on Tuesday evening played second fiddle to Tory headlines, for by all accounts the scenes there were rather unpleasant.

The meeting spanned five hours, called to decide whether or not Jezza was entitled to have his name on the leadership ballot without the required number of Labour MPs and MEPs to nominate him. It felt like a dodgy technicality devised to give those standing against him an unfair advantage, but it can only be a proper contest with the incumbent leader allowed to take part, especially when he refuses to budge. The goalposts have already been moved out of sheer desperation to prevent his endless tsunami of online recruits from buying him the leadership again, but his opponents are running out of ideas now.

Despite the fact that we’ve just lived through one of the most dramatic political weeks of the last half-century, Corbyn hasn’t publicly commented on any of the events to have taken place beyond the bunker at the Commons where his Swiss Guard repel visitors; but it was no great surprise that the Invisible Man materialised at the NEC meeting, arriving to a rapturous reception from his starry-eyed acolytes outside the venue. It confirmed to me that Jeremy Corbyn really isn’t interested in anything or anyone but Jeremy Corbyn.

The persecution complex that Corbyn and his bullish mafia are forever exhibiting in public, painting themselves as heroic little people being crushed by the evil elite empire, doesn’t quite fit with the tactics they use against their perceived enemies, some of which are as vicious and sinister as anything governments have in their intimidating arsenals. Following a series of publicised warnings from the likes of the bolshie throwback thug, Unite General Secretary, Len McCluskey, the Corbynistas were out in force at the NEC meeting. Aggressive threats of legal action on the part of the Shadow Cabinet (or what’s left of it) should the NEC come to a decision that Corbyn’s mob disapproved of were delivered as soon as the conference began, according to shaken NEC member Johanna Baxter on ‘The World at One’ the following day.

The vote to decide whether or not Corbyn could be automatically included on the list of candidates was a secret ballot because many feared reprisals from the Corbyn faction should their individual votes become public knowledge and serve as ammunition for the bullies shielding Jezza from non-believers. Incidentally, Corbyn himself made it clear he didn’t want a secret ballot, despite pleas from NEC members seeking to avoid the kind of treatment any Labour MP or member who dares to criticise Corbyn receives on social media; you know the kind of thing I’m talking about – and it’s not just a brick through the window, virtual or literal. With one simple gesture made by the Messiah, his troll battalion would have done as they were told; and he refused. For all his public condemnations of bullying undertaken on his behalf, Corbyn seems to attract it in the same way Sham 69 used to attract violent far-right skinheads to their gigs.

The deceptively avuncular John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor and Corbyn’s closest party ally, aired his own foul-mouthed opinion of the PLP ‘plotters’ at yet another of the endless rallies he and the rest of the Corbyn crowd are forever attending on the same night as the NEC meeting. You can take the boy out of the backbench, but you can’t take the backbench out of the boy.

Inherited guilt over everything Tony Blair represented, and an inability to know how to deal with it, has pushed Labour into the hands of a fanatical, nasty little neo-Trotskyite clique who haven’t a clue how to reach out to anyone who doesn’t fit their narrow agenda and basically don’t give a shit about doing so. Their public image as dedicated keepers of the sacred socialist flame is a soft sell to the converted, and the Guru’s Gestapo is something that the starry eyes are blind to.

Just as Tony Benn had Militant Tendency, Corbyn has Momentum; he can even call on powerful supporters within the same media he likes to portray as the root of all evil – ageing champagne socialists as well as graduates of the latest academy of ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’, always on hand to spread the word via a tweet that accuses any opposite opinion of being Blairite, end of. And tonight they want to party like it’s 1979 – on a never-ending loop.

Angela Eagle and Owen Smith are like a couple of music hall acts somewhere halfway down the bill, just below the performing dogs, whereas Corbyn is the emcee, banging his gavel and giving his Good Old Days audience the archaic familiarity they crave. And these are the best Labour can offer the public as an alternative to Theresa May? The new PM may as well call a snap Election in the autumn; were a full five-year term rather than just under four desired, Labour would hand it to her on a plate. If she can make Boris Foreign Secretary, she could give Michael Portillo a Peerage and make him Minister for Badly-dressed Middle-Aged Men if she so wished. She can do what the hell she wants – and that’s why everyone crying out for an alternative is either desperately honing in on Corbyn or simply despairing. At the moment, the Labour Party is the best guarantee of uninterrupted Conservative Government that the Tories have ever had.

© The Editor

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